September 21, 2008

Housing Projects Set to Get ‘Green’ Breather

By Nitin Sethi

NEW DELHI: Does a housing project need to be treated on par with a pollution spewing chemicals factory or a coal mine?

The government having decided that the critical housing and construction projects cannot be equated with the much more inherently polluting sectors, is set to rationalize the environmental norms. It has decided to do away with environmental clearances for construction projects below 50,000 square metre area. At present, the cut-off is kept at 20,000 sqmt.

In a simultaneous move, the government is also going to make it mandatory for all project developers to pro-actively share information on the conditions that are imposed while giving clearances. This provision could provide citizens and communities with information to measure a project's environmental performance after the clearances are given, the government contends.

The project developers are not required to share information on the conditions that have been imposed by the environment ministry while giving clearance under the Environment Protection Act. Once the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification is modified, they would be required to publish clearances in local newspapers and share it with municipal bodies. The ministry too would put up all clearances on its website.

While recommending these alterations to the existing EIA rules, the government admitted that though the existing rules and system were rigorous, the implementation was below par. At present, six regional offices of the ministry spread across the country are supposed to monitor hundreds of projects that get clearances every year. By this alteration, the government hopes to create a 'societal vigil' to make enforcement more effective.

On the housing sector front, the move to exempt construction below 50,000 sqmt comes after a complaint by the industry leaders that it was being equated with far more problematic sectors of the economy. Recently, HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh was reported by TOI as stating, "Environmental concerns are extremely valid, but the present procedures involving multi-tiered approvals from various bodies and the mandatory no-objection public hearings calls for an urgent assessment."

The government seems to also have had a sympathetic ear for the critics of the clearance procedure, which required the project developers to go through the routine even if the construction projects fell in designated housing sites and other pre-allocated areas under urban master plans.

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